Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Life Milestones: Important Occasions, Special Clothing

July 12, 2023

The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, on display through August 2023, features clothing worn for some of life’s milestones.

Milestones mark a significant change or stage in life. There are many milestones — though type and timing may be a bit different for everyone. For some milestones, we wear special clothing (marriage), for others, we do not (first driver’s license). The customs and traditions that mark these milestones may evolve over time.

The clothing we wear for a particular milestone may reflect religious symbolism or cultural identity. It may mirror tradition or follow fashion trends. And it often becomes immortalized in photographs.

Dress, Worn by Megan Mines on Her First Day of Kindergarten, 1980
Dress worn by Megan Mines, 1980. Gift of Cindee Mines. / THF169506 

Megan Mines in Her First Day of School Dress, 1980
Megan Mines in her first-day-of-school dress, 1980. Gift of Cindee Mines. / THF128552

First Day of School
Heading to school for the first time often brings excitement, curiosity and, for some, a little anxiety. Preparing for the big day usually means fresh school supplies — crayons, pencils, notebooks, backpacks — and often a brand-new outfit to wear. Though kindergarten doesn’t mark the distinct transition to formal schooling it once did — as more kids go to child-care or attend preschool — it’s still a significant moment in a child’s life. They join the bigger kids in a setting of more structure and responsibility. It’s an emotional milestone for parents too.

Who wore this dress?
Megan Mines donned this plaid dress and set off for her first day of kindergarten in Warren, Ohio, in 1980. For Megan, the transition from home to school was not entirely smooth, seen in the uncertain look in her eyes and lack of a smile as she posed for the photographer in her first-day-of-school dress.

Boy's Suit, Worn by Richard R. Johnson to his First Communion, 1941
Boy's suit worn by Richard Johnson, 1941. Gift of Patricia L. Johnson. / THF193910

Richard Rohyans Johnson at his First Communion, Visitation Catholic Church, Detroit, Michigan, 1941
Richard Johnson poses at Visitation Catholic Church in Highland Park, Michigan, after making his First Communion in 1941. In memory of Richard Rohyans Johnson. / THF704786 

First Communion
First Communion is the most important sacrament in the life of young Catholics, one in which they receive the Eucharist, consecrated bread and wine, for the first time. Most Catholic children experience this sacrament at age 7 or 8, a life stage during which kids become increasingly able to solve problems, apply logic and internalize a sense of right and wrong.

Children prepare by attending religious instruction and then receive their First Communion during a special mass. Afterwards, a celebration is held with family and friends. Girls wear a white dress and veil. Traditional attire for boys is either a white suit or a dark suit with a white shirt.

Who wore this suit?
Richard Johnson wore this suit for his First Communion at Visitation Catholic Church in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1941. His family had recently moved from Indiana to Detroit, where Richard became a student at Visitation elementary school. Richard’s mother likely chose his suit — one appropriate for a young boy moving up from knickers but before donning long pants like those worn by older boys.

Suit, Worn by Michael Endelman at his Bar Mitzvah, 1989
Boy’s suit worn by Michael Endelman, 1989. Gift of Michael Endelman. / THF193902

Kippah, Worn by Michael Endelman at his Bar Mitzvah, 1989
Kippah (yarmulke) worn by Michael Endelman, 1989. Gift of Michael Endelman / THF193875

Bar Mitzvah Invitation, Michael Endelman, April 1, 1989
Invitation to Michael Endelman’s Bar Mitzvah, 1989. Gift of Michael Endelman. / THF707500 

Michael Endelman, Dressed for His Bar Mitzvah, 1989
Michael Endelman, wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), reads from the Torah (handwritten scroll in Hebrew containing the Five Books of Moses) at his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1989. Gift of Michael Endelman. / THF707472 

Bar Mitzvah
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony, meaning “son of commandment,” marks the time when a boy becomes a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. Girls become a Bat Mitzvah, “daughter of commandment.” Considered adults in the Jewish religion, these teens become responsible for their own actions and are eligible for religious duties, including leading prayers and reading from the Torah and other Jewish texts during services in the synagogue.

Boys and girls prepare with study offered through a synagogue and Hebrew schools. At the ceremony — usually following their 13th birthday — they read from the Torah. Boys wear a suit, a tallit (prayer shawl) and a kippah (skullcap traditionally worn at prayer and in synagogue). Girls usually wear a dress and often a tallit and kippah. Afterwards comes a celebration with family and friends.

Who wore this suit?
Michael Endelman wore this suit during his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in April 1989. Michael and his father went together to J.L. Hudson, a local department store, to choose Michael’s suit — his very first.

Dress, Worn by Maritza Garza at her Quinceanera, 1992
Dress worn by Maritza Garza, 1992. Gift of Maritza Garza. / THF194071

Bag, Used by Maritza Garza at her Quinceanera, 1992
Bag, 1992. Gift of Maritza Garza. / THF194237

Invitation to the Quinceanera Celebration of Maritza Garza, 1992
Invitation to Maritza Garza’s quinceañera mass and reception, April 4, 1992. Gift of Maritza Garza. / THF91662

Maritza Garza at Her Quinceanera, Holy Redeemer Church, Detroit, Michigan, 1992
Maritza Garza during her quinceañera mass at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in April 1992. Here, masses have been offered in Spanish since 1960 for the Mexican American congregation. Gift of Maritza Garza. / THF91666 

Quinceañera—Spanish for “15 years”—is a milestone for many young women in Latinx culture. This special birthday marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Both a religious and social event, a quinceañera emphasizes the importance of family and community in the life of a young woman.

The honoree chooses a formal gown to wear and carries a bouquet of roses. A quinceañera begins with a religious service at a Catholic church. Then comes a party with food and dancing. Symbolic ceremonies may include swapping out the honoree’s flat shoes for high heels. A quinceañera celebration makes the young woman feel special as she continues her journey from childhood into young adulthood.

Who wore this dress?
Maritza Garza chose this formal dress for her 1992 quinceañera, finding it at Maggie’s Bridal Shop in her southwest Detroit Mexicantown neighborhood. White is the traditional color for quinceañera gowns, with light pink, blue or yellow also a popular choices.

As customary, a “court” of family and friends helped Maritza celebrate her special day — the young women wore formal gowns, and the young men donned tuxedos.

Tuxedo, Worn by John "Jack" Krygier to His Wedding at the Martha-Mary Chapel in 1973
Tuxedo worn by Jack Krygier, 1973. Gift of Cheryl and John Krygier. / THF192795 

Cheryl and Jack Krygier at Their Wedding, Martha-Mary Chapel, Greenfield Village, 1973
John (Jack) Krygier and Cheryl Harris at their December 1973 wedding ceremony in Martha-Mary Chapel at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Gift of Cheryl and John Krygier. / THF707478 

Marriage is the major rite of passage in cultures around the world. This milestone marks a significant transformation in one’s status, from being single to joining another in marriage. Religion often plays a role in marriage ceremonies in most cultures.

Wedding fashions and customs evolve over time — and may be celebrated in a traditional or very personal way. Menswear could be quite flashy in the 1970s — even tuxedos came in bright or pastel colors like powder blue, yellow, mint green, electric blue and cream. Ruffled shirts and oversized butterfly bow ties, available in a rainbow of hues, completed the look.

Who wore this tuxedo?
With his blue tuxedo, ruffled shirt and velvet bow tie, Jack Krygier was the height of fashion at his wedding to Cheryl Harris in December 1973 in Dearborn, Michigan. Many grooms rent their formal wedding attire — Jack had his tuxedo custom-made from blue pinwale corduroy fabric he selected himself. The first time his bride saw the stylish tux was at the wedding. Her groom — when asked what he planned to wear at the ceremony — assured her, "Don't worry about it. It will be fine." It was — Cheryl loved the tux!

Jeanine Head Miller is curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford.